FSCast #237

October,  2023

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 237, I'll be joined by Pete Torpey.  You probably know him as the co-host of the Eyes on Success podcast, but prior to that he had a distinguished career as a research fellow at Xerox.  Then, Space Camp for interested visually impaired students.  We'll get all the details from Group Coordinator Dan Oates and Space Camp Vice President Robin Soprano.

2024 Software Updates

GLEN:  Hello everybody, Glen Gordon here.  Thanks very much for joining me for the October 2023 edition of our podcast.  If all has gone well, by the time you're hearing this we have released the 2024 editions of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion, packed with a variety of new features.  And although this is the initial release of each of these products, it's not the last you will hear of new features.  We try to release them throughout the year, but we do try to put a few really tempting morsels in the initial release.

For JAWS, probably the three things at the top of the list are Face in View, an easy way to make sure that if you're in a meeting that requires your camera, that your camera is actually photographing you, rather than maybe a wall or your computer or your chest.  Most of the time people want to see your face, though in my case perhaps my chest is a better choice.  Either way, Face in View will let you decide that.  We've also added split view mode for braille, where your braille display can show two different things at the same time; similar for those who are more visual in having a couple of monitors, where you can see two windows at the same time.  And lastly, we've added an optional way of using something called MathCAT in our Math Viewer if you're reading MathML.

For ZoomText, the big improvement this year is performance.  Everybody who has tried the 2024 edition of ZoomText has commented just how much faster and more responsive it is.  Of course, if you're a Fusion user, you get the best of both worlds.  You can read in detail about these updates by going to our website, freedomscientific.com/downloads, select your product of choice, and even before you get to the download links will be links for reading about the new features.  You of course can download your 2024 version from that page; but for the most part you shouldn't have to if you've been keeping 2023 up to date.  We'll tell you that there's a new major version of your product.  And when you go to download it, we've added a bit of a refinement this go-around.

Previously we would let you download it, and you'd only know that you weren't authorized to run it after you actually went to install it, completed the install, and launched it for the first time.  But now we check your license; and if you're not authorized for 2024, we'll tell you right before you download it.  And we encourage you to switch to the new version, both for what's in these initial product releases and what you'll be getting in subsequent months throughout the year.

Next Big Thing Contest

GLEN:  We've gotten a really good set of great entries in our Next Big Thing contest.  The initial round has now closed, and our Round 1 judges are busily going through all of those entries.  Their goal is to evaluate all of them and reduce it to the best three.  Those top three entrants will be joining us at a live event on Tuesday evening, November 14th, at 6 p.m.  Eastern.  If you can join us live, that would be great.  And you can register by going to freedomscientific.com/nextbigthing.

We are going to keep the live festivities to an hour.  Each of the finalists will be presenting their idea.  Those of us who are Round 2 judges will be asking them a variety of questions to get a better idea of what they're proposing.  Then the judges will go off and argue amongst themselves while the rest of you get some entertainment.  Judges will then come back, will declare the winner, and the winner will be proclaimed.  All part of our Next Big Thing event on November 14th at 6 p.m. Eastern.

October JAWS Power Tip from Sara Newman

GLEN:  Time now for this month's Power Tip.  It's courtesy of Sara Newman from a relatively long time ago.  A couple of years back was when she sent this in.  But I remembered it just at the right time, when I was completely befuddled by a website.  I had gone to that site to download a file.  I had located the download link in the virtual buffer.  I pressed ENTER and expected that either the file would just download or I'd get some additional content, some of which would be a form that I needed to respond to.  But when I pressed ENTER on download, nothing happened.  I made sure that the window was maximized with ALT+SPACE followed by X.  I made sure that Zoom was set to 100% with CTRL+0 on the number row.  I did both of those things to make sure that there was the maximum space available for the web page to show its content.  But that didn't help at all.  And I literally kept doing the same things over and over again for close to 10 minutes, trying to figure out why things had gone wrong.

And then I suddenly remembered that there's this old technique that web developers used to use a lot; and now, fortunately, they use hardly at all.  And that is to require the mouse sit on top of a link in order for additional information or other links to appear.  Fortunately, there's a JAWS key combination to move the mouse to the on-screen location of where you're positioned in the virtual buffer.  It's CTRL+JAWS key+ENTER.

So I went back to this link.  I pressed CTRL+JAWS key+ENTER.  And JAWS announced that content changed at a particular location on the screen.  You could always jump to that line.  But in my case, suddenly some additional links appeared below the download, specifically for a variety of files that I could download.  I arrowed down to the one I cared about, pressed ENTER, and the download proceeded without error.  So I was delighted to have solved that problem and decided that, if I had this issue, probably you did, too.  In my case, it was a link that needed the mouse to be sitting on top of it before other content would appear.  It could as easily be a button or just some random piece of text.

So if you're expecting something to happen, and it doesn't, try moving the mouse to wherever you're positioned in the virtual buffer, if where you're positioned seems to be an action that can be taken, and see if the screen contents changes and therefore you have more options available to you.  We thank Sara for her Power Tip and for submitting it.  She gets a year added onto her JAWS license.  If you have a Power Tip, a little-known feature that may help others get out of a bind, write to us at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  If we use your tip, you'll get a year added on to your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.

Interview with Pete Torpey

GLEN:  Like many of you, I am a regular listener to Eyes on Success, the podcast hosted and produced by Pete Torpey and Nancy Goodman Torpey.  When they've appeared on other shows talking about Eyes on Success, they've always come as a pair because their podcast was the subject.  But today, Pete Torpey is the subject, and in particular his work as a blind physicist at Xerox.  In fact, he was one of only 20 research fellows who were there, and he was the youngest research fellow ever at Xerox.  So quite a list of accomplishments to his name, some of which we'll hear about in the next few minutes.  Pete, welcome.

PETE TORPEY:  Hey, Glen.  It's always good to talk to you.  Long time no see, as they say.

GLEN:  You were born with glaucoma, but no one knew right off.  Is that correct?

PETE:  That is true.  My mom would take me out into the sun, and I would squint and cry.  And, you know, moms have a sense for what's right with their kids.  She'd take me to the doctor, and the doctor would say, “Oh, he's just colicky.  You have a colicky kid.”  So the glaucoma went undiagnosed for quite a while.

GLEN:  What was the impact of your glaucoma on your growing up and how you did things?

PETE:  So all in all, I consider myself pretty fortunate.  I actually had some vision when I was young.  I was able to hold a book just several inches from my nose and read it.  But in those days, they didn't mainstream people who couldn't see well.  And since I couldn't see the blackboard from the front row of the classroom, I actually attended a school for the blind until the end of fifth grade.

GLEN:  And how did you happen to be mainstreamed at that point?  Because that was not standard; was it?

PETE:  No, it was not.  But we were living in New York at the time when I was young, and there was a school for the blind, Lavelle School for the Blind, in New York City.  So that was easy.  When we moved to Long Island, I was in sixth grade, and we said, well, let's see how public schools go.  And it actually went pretty well.  I found myself a little handheld monocular that was sort of like a folded-up telescope that I could look at the blackboard with.  And other than that, I just held my face really close to anything I was reading.

GLEN:  Did you gravitate toward science early on, or did that come later?

PETE:  Oh, yes.  I tell people I did mathematical games and puzzles as a kid; and then when I grew up, someone paid me to do it.  So it almost wasn't like work.

GLEN:  What are your sort of memories of things like that that you did when young?

PETE:  I would get these books on puzzles and mathematical games.  And my head was always into stuff like that.  I was an avid reader when I was young.  A lot of Isaac Asimov, both his science fiction novels, and he did a lot of nonfiction work that was very accessible to young people in elementary school or middle school.

GLEN:  Dealing with science.

PETE:  Yes.  Oh, yes.

GLEN:  At the same time, you proved to be a bit of a musical prodigy.

PETE:  You know, at the School for the Blind they decided to offer free piano lessons.  And I remember starting piano lessons with a blind piano teacher in second grade.  And I enjoyed it so much, my folks bought a little spinet upright piano.  And I continued playing.  In high school, I actually attended the Manhattan School of Music on their Saturday prep program for people intending to go to music school.  And that's when I learned a lot of music theory, and a lot more about music, and really got into playing the piano.

GLEN:  So could you sight-read at that point?  How did you learn music?

PETE:  Well, that was kind of a drag for me at the time.  I had to look so closely at the music that I couldn't play and read the music at the same time.  So I would memorize these complex classical pieces a measure at a time.  By the time I got it memorized, I was sick of the music.  But of course, by the time I knew the notes, that's when it was time to start making it be music.  So I got a little frustrated, and I actually quit music cold turkey at the end of high school.  Later in life, I learned to enjoy jazz.  And there, with all my musical background, it was easy to learn a melody in my head and put together my own arrangements of tunes.  And when I retired, some retired friends of mine and I got together, and we played very regularly at many of the senior facilities in town.  And it was very rewarding and fun.

GLEN:  How was doing science as someone who had limited vision?

PETE:  Well, it was interesting.  Although I told you I could hold a book several inches from my nose for a long time when I was young, I actually lost all of my vision due to some eye surgery the summer before I was to start graduate school with a fellowship.  And that's when I had to relearn my braille skills.  I learned to use a cane during that time.  And I said, “Look, I may have gone blind, but there is ways of doing this.”  And I spent the summer just training myself to be successful in graduate school.

GLEN:  I'm surprised, given that you had some vision, that you managed to learn braille originally.

PETE:  Well, that was interesting.  When I was at the school for the blind, they started teaching me braille in first grade, and I did that along with the rest of the kids.  The only reason I read print is because my mother taught me to read print.  And I was able to read a little bit before going to first grade, and I continued reading.  In fact, I had a funny experience in fifth grade.  The teacher came to me halfway through the year, and she said, “Wow, you really like to read, don't you?  You hand in a lot of book reports.”  And I said, “Yeah, I do.  I like reading.”  She says, “Where do you get your books?  I don't think we have some of these in our braille library.”  I said, “Braille?  That takes too long.  We have a public library right down the street.  They have great books.”  She marched me down to the braille library, picked me up a couple of volumes of braille.  That was the last book report I handed in for the year.

GLEN:  Wow.  Yeah, you use whatever is at your fingertips, or at your eyeballs, as the case may be.

PETE:  That's right.  Well, I think the other thing I learned when I was learning my cane lessons, and I could see a little bit of light at the time, but not a whole lot of detail, I tried starting out by blindfolding myself.  I said, “I'm blind.  I should be able to do this without any visual cues at all.”  And they said to me, “Well, you use all the tools that are around you.  And if they complement each other, that's fine.  Use what's around you.”

GLEN:  And how did you do things like work math?  Was this all on a Perkins Brailler at that point?

PETE:  After about the first half year of graduate school, my eyesight cleared up enough so I could use a CCTV with the letters with lots of contrast and blown up to three, four inches high.  But even then, it was kind of a struggle.  But, you know, that's one of the things about being blind.  Sometimes you develop some skills that are actually helpful.  I learned to do a lot of math in my head and sort of see where the mathematics was going in my head.  And sometimes that's a good thing.  You can get to see an overview of the whole problem.  I liken that to being a computer programmer later in life when, you know, even a sighted person, they can't see the entirety of a written computer code because there are many, many lines of code.  But if you learn to internalize an image of that in your head and the structure of that in your head, sometimes you can be at an advantage.

GLEN:  When you graduated with a physics degree, what made you apply to Xerox, and what made them decide to hire you?

PETE:  So I went into physics not knowing exactly what I wanted to do.  That's almost why I majored in physics because in physics you learn a little bit about mechanics, you learn about quantum mechanics, you learn about heat transfer, you learn about all these different areas, electricity and magnetism.  I didn't know what I wanted to do.  I just thought I wanted to solve problems.  And so that's what got me into physics, and particularly my PhD in engineering physics, because I wanted to do some applied work.

And funny enough, I had no idea that Xerox hired physicists.  I applied there because Rochester, where Xerox is located, had the Eastman School of Music.  And I figured when I'm working up there, I can take classes and lessons and learn more about music.  And it just so happened that Xerox was starting up an inkjet program at the time, and one of the few areas that physicists don't learn is fluid mechanics.  So I was an ideal fit for their job.

GLEN:  And why did you learn it?

PETE:  University of Virginia, where I went, had an engineering physics program where you took half of your courses in the physics department and half in the engineering school.  And I figured, well, what are the one thing physicists didn't learn?  It was fluid mechanics.  And so I wound up kind of in the aerospace department, taking half of my courses there.

GLEN:  And what did you do as your first job at Xerox?

PETE:  I started out at Xerox writing computer models of inkjet printers.  So looking at how did the drops come out of the jets, what happened when a spherical drop hit a piece of paper, how they got misdirected through the air, how they dried out, the heat management in the printheads as you were pumping energy into pumping these jets out.  So all these aspects, there were so many different aspects that were fun to look at.  And that's what I started doing, all in Fortran, by the way.

GLEN:  Did you have any vision left at that point?

PETE:  At that time, I was still using the CCTV.  In fact, the way I used a computer terminal was one of my colleagues at Xerox took a computer terminal, put it on a sliding drawer, and then placed that in front of a mirror that I could move back and forth.  And that's how I read a computer terminal, by aiming that at my CCTV.

GLEN:  What was your transition from being a magnifier user to becoming a screen reader user?

PETE:  You know, I tried to use my vision for as long as I could.  And you'd blow up the print more and more, and I'd squint more and more and come home with headaches and stuff.  But slowly, as the speech synthesizers became better, I began to let go a little bit.  And then the braille displays came along, and that was another help, too, to help me make the transition.

GLEN:  At some point, you became a JAWS user, because otherwise we likely would not have met when we did.

PETE:  Well, and that was a great transition.  So Xerox was moving from DOS-based systems to Windows 95, I believe, at the time.  And everybody was saying, “Oh, my word, what's Pete going to do when Xerox moves to Windows?”  And I said, “Well, we'll figure it out.”  And as you know, I tried many screen readers at the time because at the time they were all starting out.  There were lots of choices.  And I was just about to give up until I found JAWS, and I thought, wow, this actually works.  And then I found out why.  It's because it was developed by blind people.  They had to use it.

GLEN:  Did you have to begin to have a different model for processing information once you were just consuming it with your fingers or by ear?

PETE:  As a print reader most of my life, I was used to seeing the format of things, and I relied on braille for that.  And, you know, I think braille is an important skill for people who are blind because sighted people, their first impression is, what does a document look like?  How is it laid out?  You're less prone to make spelling errors if you can see them in braille.  I particularly use braille for programming because, back in the day when I was using Fortran, you couldn't make such nice variable names that would speak out something sensible.  You were limited to seven characters.

GLEN:  Did you find that you could gain respect from your colleagues early on, or did that take a while?

PETE:  I think I pretty rapidly had the respect from my colleagues.  You know, in fact, you talk about hiring a blind person.  I never mentioned it on my résumés that I sent out.  The first indication they had that I was blind is when I'd fly to an interview, and they'd say, “We'll meet you at the airport,” and I'd say, “Okay, look for the guy with the white cane.”  And I asked Xerox about that about a year later after I became comfortable with the situation.  I said, “You know, what made you hire a blind person?”  And my manager looked at me and said, “You know, we figured if you were smart enough to get your PhD and do so well in graduate school, then that wasn't an issue.  We were just concerned about your credentials.”

GLEN:  Your trajectory at Xerox seems like it was amazingly fast.  To go in 1979 from being an entry-level physicist writing code, to 1997 when you became the youngest of around 20 research fellows at the company, how did this happen so quickly?

PETE:  It is kind of incredible.  It sometimes surprises me.  You know, I think part of it is planning where you want to be and associating with the right people.  From day one at Xerox, I looked at the people in the group, many of whom were PhDs, because that's what Xerox hired in their research department.  And I said, “Who are the people that are doing the best work here?”  And I kind of associated myself with them, and I would ask, “What do you think is an interesting problem to work on?” Or, “I have this problem.  How would you address this?”

And actually, those couple of people that I associated with early in my career, I wound up retiring with those people later on.  But, you know, looking for the good performers, taking advice from the good performers, being open to that.  I remember walking in to my manager - actually, it was someone else's manager at the time - and I said, “What makes for a successful person around here?”  And he basically said, “Make my job easy, and I'll make everything well for you.”  And so I always had the next level up in mind when I was doing my work.  What was going to please people in general?  What kind of output were they looking for?

GLEN:  When did you start supervising other people, and how did you know how to do it?

PETE:  So the research fellow position was an interesting one.  They had parallel tracks for manager-type people and people who were more interested in science.  And so generally the manager people would manage anywhere from 10, 20, 25 people or so.  But, you know, scientists who are promoted to managers don't often make the best managers.  But with the research fellow position, you got to mostly do your research, but occasionally you would have three people, maybe four, working kind of with you more collaboratively.  Later, my group got to be 12 because we were just doing a lot of work, and they didn't have a person that they trusted to do some of the image processing, so they gave it to the blind man.  But most of my interactions were collaborative, and I enjoyed getting along with people.

GLEN:  How did you deal with image processing output when you perhaps were not the one who could do the fine-grain analysis of whether or not things were on the right path?

PETE:  So this was another interesting thing.  I talked before about sometimes you develop skills or bring something to a team.  As a blind person, that can be an advantage, and I believe being blind in my group was an advantage.  Scientists often have a hard time talking and interacting with each other.  They'd rather interact with a computer in general.  But I understood the fundamentals of what was going on in image processing, where the bits should be.  I understood all the scientific terms.  And when it came to looking at prints, everybody sees something different in a print.  Some person may say, oh, this looks, you know, too sharp to me.  It's too enhanced.  This color is wrong.  And for me, everybody in the team had to verbalize what they were thinking.  And I think it enhanced communication among the whole team, and we came up with a better result because of it.

GLEN:  How much of your success was sort of coordinating the output from the team, and how much of it was really you yourself coming up with innovative concepts?

PETE:  What really led to me becoming a research fellow was this process and technique I put together and developed for creating what they called “simulated prints.”  So these are prints that I generated that were representative of actual output you would see from printers that didn't exist yet.  When you're designing a new printer, you have to think about the concept and what's it going to look like and what are going to be the specifications.  So you put in a lot of design time, and then you actually have to make a prototype in order to test the printer.  Well, that can take a year because you're in the machine shop, and you've got to put these parts together, and they don't work, et cetera, et cetera.  It's a long process, and then you start testing the printer and making prints to see what they look like.

So I put together a combination of software that I wrote and hardware that I found out about that was able to take an image in, go through my software, and the software would say, okay, this printer heats up this way, and the jets are misdirected like this way, and they're moving this fast, et cetera, et cetera.  And the end analysis was I could hand someone a print that looked like it came off a printer that didn't exist.  So this saved a tremendous amount of time and money.  So I'd go to these conferences and talk about inkjet printers, and I could show them all these simulated prints pretending they came from a real printer, but we couldn't speak about the fact that all my prints were simulated.

So that's what got me to be a research fellow.  And then from there, I always worked well with people.  And, you know, I didn't need to take over anybody's job or, you know, get the next level up.  I was happy doing what I was doing.  So I hired people into the group who worked pretty independently themselves.  And, you know, I managed to spend a good fraction of my time just doing my own work, collaborating with these people, and it was an opportunity as a research fellow to work with the rest of the team.  It's sort of like having more arms to do the work that you really wanted to do.

GLEN:  Did you and Nancy meet at Xerox?

PETE:  We did.  So I came in 1979; and Nancy, who was the same age as me, came to Xerox in 1982 after doing a year-and-a-half postdoc in Germany.  And we met ostensibly because, well, there weren't many women in physics, for sure.  She was, like, maybe one of two or three, if that many, out of a couple hundred research scientists who were women at the time.  But we had both independently in graduate school picked up contra dancing, which is sort of like square dancing, except it's done in lines.  And I had known that, from my previous contra dancing experience around the country at festivals before, that someone told me, “Hey, there's this lady from Chicago coming to Rochester who's a contra dancer.  You ought to look her up when she comes to town.”

And I did, and it turned out we lived within a couple blocks of each other, we were in the same carpool, and our managers reported to the same people.  So one way or another, we were going to meet.  So she came in '82, and we were friends until January of the next year and married by July.

GLEN:  Pretty fast.

PETE:  Pretty fast.  I wouldn't recommend that to our kids, but we've been married over 40 years now, so...

GLEN:  You guys retired really young.  I'm thinking mid-50s.  That's a long time in retirement.  Did you have any doubts that you could occupy your time?

PETE:  When we took the package that Xerox offered, it turned out a lot of our colleagues did.  So the people we thought we'd miss at work turned out to be our playmates.  And we took it a little bit on faith that we'd find stuff.  We don't do the same things that we did when we first retired nearly 20 years ago, but there's always something new to do, always some new way to contribute if you keep your mind open.  I mean, look at our Eyes on Success podcast, for example.  We never envisioned that when we retired, but somehow that all happened.

GLEN:  So how did that come to be?

PETE:  We volunteered to do a fund drive for our local NPR affiliate, WXXI AM, and we decided to go in and man the telephones.  Nancy brought in her laptop, and there I was with her laptop and JAWS and a telephone.  And everybody came in, “How's this blind guy doing this?”  And they were all, like, amazed.  They wanted to see my system.

And then the person who was the manager of the FM station, she was actually running the radio reading service and said to me, “You know, you seem to know a lot about computers.  We have a blind person doing the board in the radio reading service, and we're getting a new version of the software for the whole station, and his software will not work with that.  Do you think you could help him?”  And I wound up writing some JAWS scripts for him that enabled him to access this new software.  And the day they made the transition to him using the screen reader JAWS with the new version of the program, the entire station updated.  So it was one person sort of holding back that whole flood wall.

GLEN:  But then how did that lead to your doing the show?

PETE:  Oh, well, she came to us later on, and she says, “You know, you guys both speak pretty well.  Pete seems to know a lot about technology and being blind.  How about if you guys do a weekly program for us?”  So we started doing in their studios a weekly thing.  We'd come in; she'd record us; she'd edit us.  And after about a year of that, we decided, you know, it's so easy to do some of this at home without all the restrictions, and we can put up our own website.  And, you know, they didn't want us making the podcast ourselves, and they weren't doing it successfully, posting podcasts regularly, so we just decided to do it ourselves.  It really can be done from home these days with not too much investment.

GLEN:  I'm thinking this was 2011.

PETE:  I think it was.  Yeah, we've been doing this show for – a I think we're in our 13th year now.

GLEN:  Wow, and you guys stay interested.

PETE:  We never thought we'd had enough material for more than half a dozen or a dozen shows.  But it turns out the more you get into it, you find out all these other interesting things that are going on, interesting people to talk to.  And these days, now that we've been around so long, people contact us.  “Hey, can we be on your show?  I'm publishing a book,” or “I'm running this marathon,” or something.  So it makes it a lot easier.

GLEN:  Earlier in the interview, we sort of left you playing music with a band, but we didn't talk about the tech that you used for preparing the arrangements.  How did that all get going?

PETE:  In the early days, Nancy used to plunk out the melody to tunes into a tape recorder.  Eventually, however, I learned of Band-in-a-Box, a program that can create backing tracks, and it was a way of learning jazz music for me because it played the chords and displayed the chords on the screen.  The only problem was it wasn't accessible.  So that's when I said, okay, this is why JAWS is so powerful.  You can write your own scripts.  And I wrote some scripts that made Band-in-a-Box accessible, and I was able to learn my new jazz tunes that way.  And then I figured as long as I'm finding use for these scripts, I would just make them available for other people; so I put them up on my website.

GLEN:  Is there anything else that has been significant in your life that we have not talked about?

PETE:  We talked about working hard at one's career, and I think it's also important to have a holistic balance of one's life, career-wise, home life, et cetera.  And so I'm very pleased that in addition to having a very rewarding career, I have a very great marriage with my wife, Nancy.  We have two wonderful kids, and we managed to spend plenty of time with those kids.  You know, when we were both working hard, there's a lot to juggle when there's two professionals with full-time commitments.  And we would often hire nannies for the kids to take care of them during the day when we weren't there, and then spend as much time as we could with them in the evenings and weekends.

And, you know, we tried to limit our work hours to 40 hours a week.  I mean, sometimes as a professional you have to do more, but we always kind of made that trade-off and said home life is important. too.  You know, Nancy was offered several promotions, particularly as a woman.  They wanted her to go up the ladder, and at some point she said, “No, this just isn't for me.”  And I really admire her for doing that.  That's a hard decision.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Pete.  This was good.  I can't believe that I've known you since 1996, 1997, and that you've never been on FSCast both before or during my tenure.  So thank you very much.

PETE:  Well, it certainly is a pleasure, and it was good being friends with you, and I'm glad you did what you did to get JAWS running very effectively for people like myself around the world.

Interview with Dan Oates and Robin Soprano of Space Camp

GLEN:  During the first week of October, 160 blind and visually impaired students from around the world descended upon the U.S.  Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to attend Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, otherwise known as SCIVIS, which has been going on for over three decades and is part of the larger Space Camp program.  To that end, I thought it would be a great time to hear a little bit more about SCIVIS from the group coordinator, Dan Oates – he's also a Space Camp Hall of Fame member – and Robin Soprano, who is Vice President of Operations for Space Camp.  Welcome to both of you.

ROBIN SOPRANO:  Thank you.  Happy to be here.

DAN OATES:  Thank you very much, Glen.

GLEN:  Robin, can we start out hearing a little about Space Camp broadly, who it appeals to, the kinds of programs that it offers, and so forth?

ROBIN:  We're a six-day, five-night residential camp for those that are interested in learning and having fun.  Space Camp started in 1982 through Wernher von Braun, actually, as a part of the – he was part of the space program here at Marshall Space Flight Center and, when the Alabama Space and Rocket Center was founded, came along and said, you know, “Children have the opportunity for band camp and football camp.  Why isn't there a science camp?”  Since 1982, we've had more than a million come through our camp programs.  We have Space Camp, Aviation Challenge, Robotics Camp, and now U.S. Cyber Camp.  We hear over and over again that people come to Space Camp programs, and they find their tribe, if you will, their people, the people who are curious, and they want to learn.  It's a magical place.

GLEN:  Dan, it was 30 years plus, right, that the first blind and visually impaired students went through?

DAN:  Yes, it's been 30 – this is the 33rd year for our program.  Space Camp for Interested and Visually Impaired Students came about as a result of a gentleman that worked very closely with Wernher von Braun by the name of Edward Buckby, and Edward Buckby was considered one of the founders of Space Camp along with Dr. von Braun.  It just so happens that Mr. Buckby grew up about three miles from where I'm sitting here in the little town of Romney, West Virginia.  Back in the late '80s, Mr. Buckby received a letter from a lady in Rhode Island wanting to know why she wasn't accepted to go to Space Camp because she was blind.  Mr. Buckby, instead of throwing that letter away, kept it and thought, okay, I know some people back in Romney, West Virginia, where the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind are, that might be able to help me with this.

So he called back to his old buddy, Max Carpenter, who was the superintendent of the school, and said, “Can you bring some blind kids down?”  So 1990 was our first year with 20 children from the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind that were all blind and low vision.  And since then, we have worked our way through all of the programs to date, except for the Cyber Camp, and that's on the drawing board for right now.

GLEN:  And what got you involved?  Were you brought as sort of a chaperone assistant initially?

DAN:  In the beginning, I wasn't supposed to come.  I was on the committee to go because I was the orientation and mobility instructor at the school.  So I had – you know, they wanted my input.  But when it came time to be chosen, I wasn't one of the ones to be chosen.  And when they sent down an exploratory team of the superintendent, the principal, and one of the science teachers, they came back, and the principal called me in, and he says, “I need to talk to you about Space Camp.”  And I thought, “Oh, here we go again.  I'm not going to get invited.”  And I literally, on my hands and knees, crawled across the office, laid my right arm on the corner of his desk, and I said, “You can have it if I can go.”  And he just sort of looked at me and smiled and said, “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but you are going to go because we need an orientation and mobility instructor to go.”

GLEN:  Do you have any recollection of what those initial challenges were in terms of making things accessible?

DAN:  Yes.  Mr. Buckby has imparted to me the difficulty he had with his staff to get them on board with the idea.  One of the biggest problems we have, and we still encounter issues with it, and I'm sure Robin will support that, is the materials.  We have to get everything that they have down there in braille or large print, and you all provide the electronic braille format for us.  In the space station and in the flight decks, there's panels of switches just like you would expect to see on a real flight deck and in a real station.

Space Camp made Plexiglas cutouts for us with Velcro tags on the back, so when the time comes for someone who's blind to come in, all they have to do is – the braille is permanent on those Plexiglas panels, and they just stick them up there, and then when they're done, they just pop them right off.  And in mission control, the monitors are a lot of times behind Plexiglas panels, so kids don't get their grimy little fingers all over them.  But for us, they have brackets, and they mount the monitors out about eight inches away from the Plexiglas, so that way the low-vision kid can get their nose right on the screen if they need to.

GLEN:  So how do participants spend their time throughout the week?

ROBIN:  There are many different aspects of the activities the students do, and many of them are hands-on, classroom-type activities.  But one of the really special parts in the program for all of them is a simulated mission.  And so our space missions are a place where we suspend reality, and so we may send that team of students on a mission to the Space Station or to the Moon or Mars.  And so if your role or mission position is that you're in mission control, then you're going to have a computer screen in front of you where you're monitoring data.  You may be the flight director.  You may be an EVA officer that's talking someone through a spacewalk that has had to happen.  You may be Capcom, who's responsible to be the one who's speaking to the astronauts that are in that capsule or shuttle or on the space station or on the moon.

And so we have the ability to make accommodations in each of those areas appropriately and through some very handy and smart folks that come with Dan.  Jim Allen is one that's our technology person that works with your company to make sure that we have the ability to accommodate for the needs of each student.  Some need large print.  Some need braille.  Some need different types of braille.  And so we've learned a lot.  But we really try to meet each student where they are as best we can.

GLEN:  Is the software the same software that was used in the day, or is it sort of simulated software?

ROBIN:  It is simulated.  Back when Space Camp began, though, when we started our Space Camp missions, it was only NASA and was the only game in town at that time.  All of their documentation was a part of public record.  And so the company who wrote the software that we use currently, we were able to incorporate many of those audio prompts, when we can hook in a keypad so that there is the ability to do the speech.  And so many of the students will have actually a headset on, and so they may be listening to two different things, one where they're listening to someone speak and another where they're listening to the computer speak.

GLEN:  So, Dan, does it work with JAWS?

DAN:  Interestingly enough, it does not, because Space Camp works with a company called Binary Star.  And when they did their software upgrade some years ago, they just decided they were going to write their own.  So they had their own speech, and they had their own screen enlargement.  They have also the keypad that Robin was talking briefly about, and it allows those students at mission control or on the flight deck or in the space station to interact with that screen through, I think it's an 18-key keypad, and they can get any information off of that screen auditorily or work the screen enlargement on that keypad.

GLEN:  How much of the interactions is sort of scripted, and people need to respond in the appropriate ways at the appropriate time?  And how much of it really is improvised based on situations that come up as part of the simulation?

DAN:  That's a great question, Glen.  It used to be when we first started out it was all scripted, and it was basically a play with a script.  Flight director said this at this time, Capcom said this, commander said that, and it was all scripted.  And now they've moved to a different model where they have tasks to do at certain times in the timeline.  You know, T-minus five minutes, they may have a checklist to do, just like they would do in the real capsules.  And it really, I thought, opened up the whole thing and made it a lot more credible as opposed to opening up a book and just reading a line.

ROBIN:  It is a scalable type activity, so the younger ones, we give them more prompts, as Dan said, based on the timeline of the mission.  But the older the students are, the high school students have a lot less prompting, and theirs is more of a timeline.  They've had training for their mission.  In fact, the way our missions work is they will come to do a mission.  We call it the “mission floor” in our mission center complex, which is our version of what NASA would call Building 9.  That's out in Houston.  But you would come to do your mission.  You'd learn your role and responsibility.  We do a little practice run-through on the timeline to make sure you understand what your job is.  And then they go away and do something else.  And so maybe later that day or even the next day when they've had a little suspense to build up, you know, little nerves, some excitement, and they come back to run that mission, and our staff sort of fade back into the background, and they will run the simulation.  With those high school students, even though you've trained for the scenario, we're going to throw in some anomalies.  And so then they're going to have to focus on those critical thinking skills, and they're going to have to work together.  There might be math involved, you know, to solve the problem.  And it's really fun to watch them come through.

GLEN:  How do you work out the different aptitudes and scientific knowledge of the different students who participate?  Because I assume it's all over the map.

ROBIN:  It certainly is, and there's no prerequisites to come to Space Camp.  Some students will come in with a vast knowledge of space, and others are just here to have a good time.  Our camp counselors do a great job at being able to sort of canvas their team.  They have some tricks in their bag where on day one, you know, we're talking about, you know, what kind of books do you like to read?  What kind of things do you like to do?  And so we can assess those that may not be strong readers, and so you're not going to put them in a heavy reading position.  For those who are very active, maybe they're athletic, then maybe they're going to want a little more of an active part.  So maybe they do that first spacewalk.  But as the week goes on, we're going to then challenge them in a different way.

GLEN:  And is the program similar for SCIVIS as it is for the other sessions throughout the year?

ROBIN:  Yes, absolutely.  We really don't make many adjustments at all to the curriculum.  In fact, it's more to the way that we accommodate.  Some of the activities will take a little more time with the visually impaired, so we do have to make some slight adjustments in the schedule.  But that's something really that we are able to pride ourselves on is that we're offering the same program.  We know that we make a difference every week that we run our space camp programs.  I mean, we see it in the feedback data that we get, and we see it in the number of people who've gone on to become greatly successful in STEM careers, the astronauts that have come out of our programs.  But just at the end of the week when we hear from parents of, “Wow, my children are standing taller.  They seem to be more confident,” and we see that with our SCIVIS program as well.

DAN:  One kid stopped me, about four or five years ago, I guess.  And he said, “Thank you for creating Planet Blind.”  And I sort of looked at him and I said, “What do you mean by that?”  And he goes, “Well, every year I come here, no one ever questions me about why I use a cane, why my friend wears sunglasses, why my eyes jiggle,” all the things that blind kids have to put up with.  Nobody asks that question here because everybody's on the same planet.

GLEN:  Very clever wording.  I don't think I would have come up with that.

DAN:  Yeah, me neither.  It's always one of the nicest things that's ever said to me.

GLEN:  You've said that very often kids will come back year after year.  How different is the experience each year?

DAN:  Well, the programs start off with Space Camp, which is grades four through six, and then the curriculum changes to Space Academy, which is grades seven through nine, and then the program changes again, grades 10 through 12, and Advanced Academy.  And we have the same thing in our other program, Aviation Challenge, which is Mach 1, Mach 2, and Mach 3.  And so, you know, you can come one year to Space Camp, then you can go down to Aviation Challenge for a year, then come back up and bounce back and forth.  But normally the kids keep bouncing back and forth until they find one that they really, really like.  And then we don't see them bouncing around as much.  I've had kids come for eight years in a row.

GLEN:  Do you bring in potential mentors to meet with the group, people who themselves are blind and have been successful in science?

DAN:  Yes.  Jim Allen sort of coordinates that for us.  We have a gentleman by the name of Dr. Craig Moore, who worked at Marshall for years, who was blind at birth.  And Dr. Moore has been coming to SCIVIS, I guess, probably 25 years, maybe, to talk to the kids about his career and about just being blind.  Because a lot of our blind kids out there, Glen, don't have role models.  They don't have anybody blind that they can look up to and ask the tough questions to.  And then also Jim does a phone conference with the older students on Thursday morning of the program.  All of the NASA centers around the country that can participate will have their blind or visually impaired employees on the phone lines.

And the questions, you know, don't necessarily always involve science or employment.  I mean, Dr. Moore has been asked, do you have any friends?  Were your parents mad at you when they found out you were blind?  I mean, these kids ask questions to blind adults that they would never ask or could even have answered by someone like myself who's not blind.  So those questions, I've always said, if a child comes to Space Camp and asks that question and gets an answer, I don't really care if they learn how a shuttle works.

GLEN:  What are the things that are realistically simulated in terms of the experience of being in space?

ROBIN:  We do simulate the one-sixth gravity of the moon, if that's what you're thinking about.  We have what we call the one-sixth gravity chair, and that's one of those activities that everyone gets to do.  We simulate with an equipment called the multi-axis trainer, and it is one that the Gemini astronauts and Mercury astronauts trained on of what would happen if your capsule went into an uncontrolled tumble spin as you were coming back through the atmosphere.  How do you know what that's going to feel like if you had to keep your wits about you?

GLEN:  So you're actually tossed head over tea kettle?

ROBIN:  Absolutely.  It looks like a three-ring sort of gyros, you know, “the spinny thing” a lot of people will call it.  It's really to demonstrate that when you're strapped into that, everyone thinks you're going to get sick or get dizzy.  But since your own center of gravity really doesn't change, your stomach remains in the same plane.  You don't get sick on that.

GLEN:  How does the one-sixth gravity chair work?

ROBIN:  So it's a chair that is suspended with a spring-like suspension system.  And so you're strapped in, and they lift you up, and you're able to have that sort of spring in your step like you see the videos of the astronauts on the moon.  And our students have the opportunity to go down and back and try their best at a bunny hop or the side to side, sort of like you're trying to run on the moon.

GLEN:  How is all of this funded?

DAN:  Well, from the SCIVIS standpoint, Northrop Grumman is a sponsor for us.  They give us an amount of money to the U.S.  Space and Rocket Center Education Foundation.  Delta Gamma International Sorority gives us a little bit of funding.  The Teubert Charitable Trust in Huntington, West Virginia has sponsored the West Virginia students and our program for 33 years now.  The St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind had a unique approach.  They give us $50,000 a year, and with that $50,000 I go search the world over for kids from other countries to come.

GLEN:  And do you actually travel the world over?

DAN:  I used to when I was younger, Glen, but I don't do that anymore.

GLEN:  So how does that effort work to reach out to other countries and get people interested?

DAN:  Well, I was very fortunate to work at Space Camp during the summers for 19 seasons, and I worked in a teacher program.  So every week as teachers came to Space Camp, we would get anywhere from 250 to 400 teachers.  And as many as 35 different countries would supply teachers to our educator program during the summer.  And I could speak to them about special programs, not only the program for the blind, the program for the deaf, special weekend programs.  We did a program for little people two or three years.  And I could talk to them about that, and then they would go back to their country.  And that's how I got many.  I've had as many as 13 countries there.  This year, we had eight different countries that came and sent kids.

GLEN:  Is there something that we should touch on that I did not ask about?

DAN:  Yes, I'd like to address something.  When I first started doing this, it was all about the math and the science experience.  But it didn't take me long to realize that, yes, that is important.  But there is an inherent spirit in getting 100 or 200 blind kids together in a group.  They feed off each other.  They ask questions of each other.  It's a social experience as much as it is an educational experience.  I get kids who come who are in public school and may be the token blind kid in their school, in their district, who get no time at all around other blind kids.  They don't get to visit with their visually impaired peers.

And I've had emails already from parents who say, you know, my child went, had the best time, and now has 20 friends from all over the world.  And they're on their phones and on email every day and continue to do that.  And that has really become sort of the driving force for me to be involved, is that social experience of getting blind kids together in one place.

GLEN:  If people want to get more information about SCIVIS and think about registering when the registration period opens in May, how do they get in touch?

DAN:  The best way to reach us is through our website at www.scivis.org.  That's S-C-I-V-I-S dot org.  And we will have information on pricing and dates there, when registration will open.  And that's all done online now.  If they have questions concerning space camp in general, activities and such, then I always recommend spacecamp.com for that.  If they want to talk to me, like I say, I talk to parents all the time, all year long.  And my phone number is on the website there at scivis.org, and they can call me any time.

ROBIN:  I would just like to say thank you to those at Freedom Scientific.  I don't remember exactly how we connected with a gentleman named Mike Self, who was a regional sales director, who began helping us with the braille displays and then began coming to help us and volunteer.  But they've just been great partners to us.

GLEN:  That's great.  Thank you both very much.

DAN:  You're very welcome.

ROBIN:  Yes, thank you for having us on.

Signing Off on FSCast 237

GLEN:  That does it for FSCast 237.  If you'd like to write to us, you can send mail to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  And I love hearing from any of you, but in particular those of you who perhaps have been listening for a while and have never written in.  Every once in a while I hear from someone in that category, even if it only is just to say hi.  It's great to know that you're out there and listening to the podcast.  Suggestions or ideas are always welcome, as well.

If you have written to me and expect that you should have gotten an answer and didn't, please do not assume it was intentional.  Assume that I somehow missed your message.  I do my best to get back to folks.  And even if you've ended up in spam, I eventually find you.  But I may have missed something.  So if you've written and not gotten an answer, please write back to me, fscast@vispero.com.  I'm Glen Gordon.  Thanks for listening.  We'll see you next month.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com





edigitaltranscription.com  •  10/23/2023  •  edigitaltranscription.com